#5nights5cities Part 6: One night in the capital of the world

It's time to swing by Warsaw's quaint breakfast market before taking off for Heathrow.
Cam MacMurchy

You can catch up by Reading Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5 first.

I finally had a good night’s sleep. Because of the rain storm, I went to bed early in Warsaw and slept in until about 9am. I felt great, and ready to go out and explore.

My flight to London wasn’t set to depart until 6:30pm, giving me plenty of time to get some things done before heading out to Chopin Airport. First stop? Warsaw’s famed Targ Śniadaniowy, or Breakfast Market.

The second I read about the Breakfast Market online, I knew I absolutely loved the idea. Every Saturday from 9am until 4pm Warsaw residents gather at a park in Żoliborz to cook and eat food. A number of stalls are set up, serving everything from tacos and perogies to burgers, Indian curries and fruit. There is a stall to borrow blankets and sit on the grass while whiling away the morning.

As I was waiting for an Uber in front of my hotel a thin older lady with a thick European accent, perhaps in her 60s, stopped me on the street to ask if I enjoyed the “congress”. I said “Pardon?” I said I’m not here for a congress. She apologized and explained there was some kind of international youth congress underway near the Presidential palace that she had just attended, closing many of the roads in front of the hotel. Indeed I noticed there were no cars coming, and wondered how my Uber would find me.

Not sure whether the woman was crazy or just friendly (in Europe, it’s not uncommon to strike up conversations with people at practically any age), she asked where I was going and said she would join me. Sure enough she hopped into the Uber’s front seat and I took the back, where she regaled me of stories of meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping (even knowing his name surprised me), how classy his wife is, how great Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is, and how she knew his father (former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau). Then she said, “Melania is also a very classy woman. You know, Donald and Melania bring a touch of Hollywood to the White House.” I have no idea if she was off her medication or actually had met these people, but I couldn’t totally rule it out. It appeared she worked in some kind of NGO that took her around the world.

Regardless of who she was, I didn’t sign up to be her Warsaw tour guide, so I’m thankful she felt the Breakfast Market was too far away once we arrived, and she went directly back to the hotel. A wave of relief washed over me.

The market wasn’t quite what I pictured – it was much better. I had pictured a more formal market, large-scale in size, in a huge park, but it was none of those things. It was an unpretentious local community gathering with regular people cooking up food, a little bit of music, and attendees eating away on picnic benches in the middle of the park. It was absolutely wonderful, and a highlight of my trip.

I first got a coffee before walking around to see what I might want to eat. Sure enough foods from around the world were represented, but I wanted something with a Polish flavor so opted again for perogies. The woman who made them is apparently well known and spoke no English, but through a translator explained she had been to Canada before and loved it. Her perogies with sweet onions on them were A1.

 These were exceptional. These were exceptional.

After finishing I ordered another latte from another stall I pulled up a chair at a picnic bench and took in the sights. There is something special, and even inspiring, about witnessing the spirit of a local community as an outsider. The Warsaw Breakfast Market is definitely not a tourist attraction – it was regular people speaking Polish and joining friends and family for food. Kids ran around with their friends and played on a merry-go-round while their parents sat chatting in the sunshine. After spending a couple of hours there I knew I had to return to the hotel to check out, but had to pry myself away. I probably could’ve stayed there until it closed at 4pm, it was such a calming and happy place to spend one’s hours. It was a highlight of the trip.

I headed back to the hotel to check out around 1pm and made my way to Chopin International Airport early to kill some time (I need time to write these things, after all!) There is so much to see in Warsaw, such as museums, galleries, live music venues, memorials and more, and it’s on my list as a city to return to. With such a short visit, one can only get a taste of a place – but for me, it’s enough to know I want to return.

I arrived at the airport and checked in via British Airway’s mobile app, because the check-in counter hadn’t opened yet. Unlike Qatar Airways, the procedure was easy and clear and it downloaded my boarding pass effortlessly to my Apple Wallet. I then used the boarding pass to go through security and head towards the Fantazja Executive Lounge, one of two I would check out.

 This was a surprisingly good lounge, with yummy perogies and great working areas. This was a surprisingly good lounge, with yummy perogies and great working areas.

Warsaw has lounges dedicated to its national flagship carrier, LOT Airlines, and then just a handful of generic lounges with varying degrees of entry criteria depending on which airline you’re flying, your status, and which credit cards or other membership programs you hold. Fantazja lounge was, to my surprise, practically empty when I originally entered so I pulled up a comfy seat near the window and hauled out my computer to do some work. The lounge was bright and cordoned off into individual seating sections, with a handful of closed-in areas to get some real work done. It also had a decent hot food selection, with – you guessed it! – more perogies! These ones were a bit more traditional, filled with spinach and feta, and they were not bad at all for lounge food. I also had a turkey and vegetable stew, which drove home the point that Polish food is for hearty individuals.

I worked for a few hours before making my way past immigration and to the Bolero Lounge. I only had a few minutes there before boarding, so basically took a few photos and checked out the food. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the Fantazja Lounge.

Upon boarding BA851, I saw a little logo on the side of the airplane that gave me a clue: Ooredoo was providing on board Wifi. Ooredoo is a mobile network company based in the Middle East, and provided the poor Wifi services on Qatar Airways. Sure enough, this BA flight was a code share, and was a Qatar plane. I took seat 1A.

 Comfy for sure, but definitely not Dreamliner-style! Comfy for sure, but definitely not Dreamliner-style!

The quality of the seat on this trip has declined with each successive flight: the suite on board Qatar to Doha, followed by the lavish and large seat from Doha to Warsaw, and now a much more traditional seat with just slightly more room than an economy seat from Warsaw to London. There was no rosé this time, and no menu. Instead the flight attendant told us they had a chicken and a fish dish, and asked us which one we’d like after takeoff. My seat mate and I both picked chicken and we pushed back from the gate.

 It actually tasted better than it looked. It actually tasted better than it looked.

Considering the short flight, the food was actually solid. The chicken was juicy and done perfectly, while the creamy gnocchi in Alfredo sauce provided all the carbs necessary to fall asleep afterwards. A chocolate mousse cake along with crackers and blue cheese was the perfect cap on the meal. After reading for a while, I reclined the seat and tried to get some shuteye – for about an hour, before the pilot announced we had begun our descent into London.

I had never been to London in my entire life until I visited there in the spring, so I had not expected my second visit to come just a few months after the first. London, with its people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe, in all colors and speaking dozens of languages, has been dubbed the capital of the world. But when a city is that big and successful, it means many people want to go there, which means busy airports, which means…….. long lines at immigration.

I flew Cathay to Gatwick Airport on my first visit to London, so nothing could have prepared me for landing at Heathrow. I dutifully queued up to go through immigration at 8:15pm, with plans to meet friends at a speakeasy in Earl’s Court at by 10:30pm. Plenty of time, right? Well, not so fast. This is what I saw:

 I felt miles away. I felt miles away.

Still, I figured this can’t be more than 45 minutes long? Again, I would be wrong. By 9pm I had moved a few rows closer, but was still nowhere near getting my passport stamped. No, for that, I would need to wait another full hour. I passed through immigration at 10:10pm.

I’m not sure, considering London’s battles with terrorism, if it’s appropriate to complain about the immigration procedures at Heathrow. Asking around, I discovered my experience was not out of the ordinary, and that an hour or more for processing is routine. I will not weigh in on whether this is justified or not, except to say I had never had this issue anywhere else. This is a unique London phenomenon, at least in my own travels. (One that comes close is JFK, which is also an old airport ill equipped to deal with today’s passenger numbers.)

My friends cancelled the table at the speakeasy because there was no way I’d make it in time. Instead they holed up at a bar nearby to wait for me, so I snagged a taxi outside Heathrow and made a beeline to Leicester Square, where I had booked a room at the W Hotel to collect more Starpoints.

One of the reasons I had booked the W is I wanted to sample their keyless service, which lets customers check-in via the mobile app and be assigned a room key to their iPhone or Apple Watch, which can be used to open the door. There is no need to check in at the front desk at all. But while I went through the check-in procedure in the app, it said it would send me the key once the check-in was “approved”. Unfortunately for me, it never was, and I needed to check-in in person anyway.

 Sometimes mobile services just aren't ready for prime time. Sometimes mobile services just aren’t ready for prime time.

W Hotel targets a young, trendy clientele. Upon zipping up to the first floor lobby, I was blasted by electronica pumping from the house bar and followed the dim lighting to the check-in counter. The music was so loud that it was difficult to hear the guy checking me in, but it’s all part of the experience, right? #notafuddyduddy

 Loved the room layout and location, right in Leicester Square. Loved the room layout and location, right in Leicester Square.

In all honestly, the hotel’s creativity makes it stand out from similar priced hotels. The dark hallways and sparkling room numbers indicate you aren’t staying at a simple Sheraton, and the room design featured an open-style kitchen and mirrors everywhere. I just wish I had more time to spend there!

I had a quick shower and headed out into Saturday night in London, and what a wonderful place it is. The streets in Leicester Square were teeming with people, many of whom were inebriated and having a fantastic time. We walked through Chinatown amid the music, buzz and crowds and into the theatre district where the shows had just emptied, passing by pubs and clubs and jazz bars and members only clubs and speakeasys, all of which seemed packed to the rafters.

We settled on a place I fell in love with at first glance: Opium. Located just off Chinatown, we slipped through a narrow door into a dimly lit red hallway where we climbed three floors of stairs. The stairs opened into a cave, with little nooks and crannies with small tables and groups of people around them. We made our way to the main bar, which in proper light might resemble a large open kitchen in a big US home. We pulled up a stool and ordered several drinks, including newly-created ones like a salted caramel sazerac alongside traditional favorites like the old fashioned and whisky sour. Cocktails were superb, and we finally pulled ourselves out of there, tipsy and giggly, at 2am.

 A salted caramel sazerac. A salted caramel sazerac.

Where to go now? Standing on the street outside it began to pour, and we got soaked. One of my friends handed me a black scarf, which I wrapped around my head and covered my face, the first real indication I had just come from the Middle East. We scampered to a London late night tradition: the casino. Yes, casinos mean different things in different places. They all offer gambling, but culturally their significance can vary. London has rather strict closing times for bars and pubs, so casinos are where the after-parties happen. Sure there are roulette and poker tables along with slots and other video-style games, but there is also a 24-hour bar that was packed and even a couple of different nightclubs and patios upstairs. We wandered into a small carpeted room where young Londoners were dancing the night away, making out, pouring drinks, and living it up. We then meandered back downstairs and grabbed a table to talk for a while longer.

 Busy bar at Opium. Busy bar at Opium.

It was now 3am. My alarm was set for 6am. Dreading the sleep ahead of me, I decided it was time to go. I gave everyone hugs and walked outside into the pouring rain, then ran as fast as I could to my nearby hotel. I was soaked, but safe. It was time to go to bed. Finally.

You can read Part 7 here.

Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.

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